Many Arab Americans, like many members of all groups of people, are incredibly generous. Whether preparing food for a sick neighbor or responding to humanitarian crises in their ancestral homelands or the US, they are guided by formal and informal giving, a strong part of Arab American heritage. Perhaps the most well-known example of such Arab American generosity is Danny Thomas, a Lebanese American singer, actor, and philanthropist who founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Over the last two decades, the philanthropic sector has committed resources to researching and strengthening giving in communities of color. However, the Arab American community has been largely left out of these efforts. The sector has conducted studies on giving in African American, Latinx, Asian American and Indigenous communities, but there has been no extensive research on Arab American philanthropy—until now.
The Center for Arab American Philanthropy, the nation’s only Arab American foundation, decided to fill this research gap. While CAAP conducted a report on Arab American giving in 2006, no subsequent studies were done until 2021-2022, when the foundation used online surveys and in-person focus groups to gather information on the topic. CAAP’s recently released report, A Tapestry of Giving, provides a snapshot of the giving attitudes, habits, motivations, and priorities of the study’s participants.
Conducting such research—and any research on Arab Americans—can be difficult due to a lack of demographic data; the US census identifies respondents with Middle Eastern and North African heritage as “white,” rendering Arab Americans invisible. Despite these challenges, CAAP was committed to examining and uplifting the long, proud history of Arab American philanthropy and discovering what motivates Arab American giving. Three hundred Arab Americans participated in CAAP’s recent research. Of them, more than 80 percent identified as immigrants or the children of immigrants. CAAP elaborates on five of the major themes that emerged from their responses.
Arab Americans connect with their Arab American identity through giving
Arab Americans have diverse national origins and faith backgrounds. Participants in CAAP’s study hailed from 12 different Arab countries, identified as Muslim, Christian, or with no religion, and supported various charitable causes. Yet, when asked what motivates their giving, many participants said that they give to causes that strengthen the Arab American community and support needs in their ancestral countries, such as Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, where political and economic turmoil is causing humanitarian crises.
Participants see philanthropy as a powerful way for Arab Americans to tell their own stories about their contributions to American society and leave a legacy for future generations. “I choose organizations that reflect my ethnicity to show that immigrants have a positive impact on the nation,” one participant said. Notably, however, Arab Americans do not limit their giving to their own ethnic, national, or religious community. Almost 40 percent of respondents said they gave an equal amount to Arab American and non-Arab organizations.
Arab American giving is deeply personal
Survey respondents’ personal histories impacted their giving priorities, particularly in the areas of education, health, and refugee support, including emergency relief. Personal connections also play a critical role in how Arab Americans give. Family and friends often influence giving as participants seek input and recommendations from people they trust. Fifty-three percent of respondents were more likely to support an organization if their friends—rather than the organization—ask them to donate.
The importance of personal histories and relationships to Arab American giving should encourage philanthropic initiatives to build on the power of collective giving. One way that CAAP does this is through its 100 Arab American Women Who Care giving circle, which meets annually in the Detroit area and brings together socially conscious Arab Americans to pool their resources for a grant toward a local cause.
Arab American giving is driven by gratitude
Given the economic, political, and social turmoil roiling much of the Arab world, it may be unsurprising that respondents expressed a deep sense of gratitude, especially those who immigrated themselves or witnessed the sacrifices their parents and grandparents made for future generations. The result of such gratitude is a sense of duty to share their privilege. Eighty-six percent of survey respondents agreed with the statement: “It is my responsibility to support organizations through monetary donations.”
“I’ve had a really lucky life in a lot of ways,” one participant said. “I don’t live in poverty. I don’t live in a refugee camp. I’m tremendously thankful for that, and to have education and health care.” Across the board, respondents cited that their education played a pivotal part in enabling them to shape a better life for themselves, inspiring them to pay their own educational blessing forward by supporting scholarships.
Trust in organizations continues to be important for Arab Americans
The crucial role of trust in guiding Arab American philanthropy should not be underestimated. This includes trust not only in an organization but its leadership. Eighty-two percent of study respondents consider an organization’s leadership when making decisions about giving, and 91 percent consider an organization’s reputation and/or review the organization’s charity rating before donating.
In CAAP’s initial research on Arab American giving in 2006, participants discussed the challenges of giving after the September 11 attacks, particularly their concerns about their giving being investigated under the Patriot Act. In a post-9/11 context of anticipated racial profiling and surveillance, trust in an organization became of paramount importance—and it remains so today.
Personal relationships, either with an organization’s leaders or with friends or family who recommend an organization, are key to that trust. Arab Americans also take time to review an organization’s management and ask critical questions about the organization’s impact and value. While participants indicated that they were more comfortable giving to Arab organizations now than in years past, some still expressed hesitancy around giving to Arab—particularly Palestinian—organizations for fear of political or professional repercussions.
How Arab American giving compares to other communities of color
In 2015, the Blackbaud Institute released a Diversity in Giving report, which looked at the giving trends of White people and communities of color (Asian, Black, and Hispanic, using the report’s terms) but did not include Arab Americans. However, current information indicates that Arab Americans are more likely than other communities surveyed in the Blackbaud report to support organizations engaged in direct service, including emergency relief efforts, local social service agencies, and immigrant rights.
Arab Americans in CAAP’s study are also more likely than other communities surveyed in the Diversity in Giving report to support youth development and educational organizations. Arab Americans are more likely than other communities to engage in volunteerism and advocacy and are more proactive about engaging their friends and family in their giving through email and social media, reinforcing the deeply personal nature of Arab American giving. Arab Americans who participated in CAAP’s study were far more likely than other communities to report that they have a responsibility to give.
As the only Arab American community foundation in the country, CAAP is a leader of and advocate for telling positive stories about Arab American giving to the broader philanthropic community. We hope that the research behind our report, A Tapestry of Giving, is just the beginning of richer conversations about the impact on and role of Arab American philanthropy in shaping our society.
With more research and greater awareness of Arab Americans giving, the philanthropic sector can better understand—and engage with—what motivates this passionate and generous group of philanthropists to give.